THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Dominican Republic beckons with white sand beaches, golf

Email|Print| Text size + By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / December 1, 2004

The doubters said it couldn't be done, a Red Sox World Championship in our lifetime. But come next spring, we'll be chanting "2004!" at Yankees games and a red victory banner will be streaming down the side of Fenway Park right next to the one from 1918. We've tasted the champagne of winners, thanked the players at a parade for the ages. But will joy in Mudville vanish now that the first flurries have hit the Green Monster seats?

Not if we take the party down south -- way down south to the Caribbean nation that celebrated Red Sox dominance with us. The land of Pedro, Big Papi, and Manny -- the Dominican Republic.

What better way to show our adulation than to spend winter vacation on this island of swaying palms and soft-as-sugar sand (Haiti is the other nation on Hispaniola). Add 500-year-old Gothic cathedrals and golf courses that hug the shores and you have a fast-growing destination that exceeded 3 million annual visitors for the first time last year.

Best of all, with the advent of all-inclusive resorts, you can head down to "DR" on a budget. Often for less than $1,000 per person, you receive airfare, seven nights' accommodation, water sports, and all the food and drink you can manage. Not a bad way to celebrate.

"The Dominican Republic is competing very well with Mexico's Caribbean coast [Cancun and Playa del Carmen]," says Tony Reidy of TNT Vacations, a Boston charter company. "We saw a 35 percent growth between 2003 and 2004, and we expect the same, if not better, this winter."

Many first-time visitors head to Puerto Plata, on the northern coast. Named by Christopher Columbus on his 1492 voyage, Puerto Plata, or "port of silver," was derided as "port-a-potty" in the early '90s when hotels became dilapidated and pickpockets were rampant. Thankfully, the city has cleaned up its act. You can once again take a peaceful stroll on the Malecon, a boardwalk shaded by almond and sea grape trees, to Fort San Felipe. Constructed in 1564, this large, orange-tinted edifice with 8-foot-thick walls was used as a prison in the 31-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo that ended with his assassination in 1961.

Jump on a cable car to the nearby 2,595-foot flat-topped peak of Isabel de Torres for sweeping views of the coastline. The mountain is a protected national park with more than 30 types of birds. In the center of town stands the Amber Museum. The amber on the two floors in this restored mansion was collected by an affluent German immigrant. Children will be fascinated with the insects, some 2 million years old, trapped in the chunks of fossil resin. The northern coast has been called the Amber Coast for all of the rich deposits there.

Many of the newer resorts, such as the Coral Marien Beach Hotel & Spa, an all-inclusive offering from Hilton, are on the powdery white sands of Puerto Plata's Costa Dorado. Here, a mix of Americans and Canadians enjoy margaritas by the large pool, take a Hobie catamaran or sea kayak out in the water, or stroll a beach that never feels crowded, even during the high-peak travel weeks of Christmas and spring break.

Twenty-three miles east of Puerto Plata is Cabarete, a treasured secret among European windsurfers in the late '80s who made the trek here to take advantage of the steady trade winds and sheltered cove. Now the area is being gentrified and the windsurfers are being replaced by kiteboarders. For those who prefer land to sea, outfitters such as Iguana Mama take mountain bikers on half-day guided rides through the interior, past coffee plantations and cabbage fields, crossing rivers where villagers wash their laundry.

Punta Cana, on the eastern shore, is one of the Caribbean's most popular destinations. In winter, more than 190 flights a week arrive at the Punta Cana International Airport to deliver the European and American crowd to the upscale Punta Cana Resort or the growing legion of all-inclusives that line the stretch of sand in neighboring Bavaro. Unlike Cancun, where high-rise hotels crowd the coast and millions of bodies find their own speck of sand, Punta Cana still has the feel of a beach area that's recently been discovered. Even in Bavaro, the countless palm trees and expansive beach extend for miles, so it's easy to leave civilization behind.

Spanish-owned Iberostar has three hotels in a row with some 1,300-plus rooms. Flamingos and ibises run free under thickets of palms on the manicured grounds. Unlike other all-inclusives, where the same choice of food is served every day at one buffet, Iberostar has seven restaurants at its Bavaro resort alone, including Japanese, seafood, and gourmet choices.

Since Punta Cana is pretty much devoid of culture and sightseeing, there's little to tear you away from the swim-up bar -- a favorite with adults as well as children, who float over to order limonata and chocolate batidas (milkshakes). There's horseback riding next door to the Iberostar hotels, and, at the far end of the beach, shacks sell Haitian art, Botero look-alikes, Cuban Cohiba cigars, and rum.

Three-bedroom golf villas, complete with outdoor Jacuzzi, rattan furniture, and mahogany doors, overlook the aquamarine waters of the Punta Cana Resort. Many of the stylish touches were created by fashion designer Oscar de la Renta; he and his friends singer Julio Iglesias and dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov have houses next to the resort in a gated residential enclave called Corales. At the Pete Dye-designed golf course, six of the 18 holes face the ocean.

Golf was the main reason Gulf & Western Corp. decided in the 1960s to build the truly sybaritic Casa de Campo in the sleepy southeastern sugarcane town of La Romana. Two-story casitas, with requisite red roofs, line the two golf courses here. Gulf & Western also built an artist colony called Altos de Chavn on twisting, narrow cobblestone paths that resemble a medieval city. Here local artisans create ceramics and tapestries at a scenic outpost high above the canyon of Rio Chavn. It has become the number one destination in the country, and, with its dry weather, La Romana will soon rival Punta Cana and Puerto Plata as a Dominican hot spot.

The capital city, Santo Domingo, is where Ramirez and Ortiz were born. You should spend at least a day here to visit the lively 12-block Colonial Zone and the historic Alczar de Coln. This coral limestone palace on the shores of the Ozama River was the home of Columbus's son, Diego. Ponce de Len, Corts, and Balboa all visited the Alczar in the 1500s. Also stop by Catedral Primada de America, the oldest cathedral (built from 1514-46) in the Americas.

Step inside to see the high altar, made from silver, and remember to thank God for finally answering 86 years of prayers.

Stephen Jermanok can be reached at farandaway@comcast.net.

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